Creating The World Machine – Science meets Art

For a cold weekend in November the Lumiere festival once again comes to Durham. The city is transformed into a dazzling array of exhibits with a spectacular centre piece displayed against the backdrop of Durham cathedral, well, that is what I’ve heard. Truthfully, I hadn’t actually heard of the event until I was asked if I’d like to be involved in helping to make an exhibit for this year’s show, but when I was, how could I refuse!

What is the EAGLE simulation?

I’m Stuart McAlpine, currently I’m studying for my PhD at the Institute for Computational Cosmology where I am a member of the Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environment project, or just EAGLE for short. EAGLE is a suite of super computer simulations that seeks to emulate the entire life of the universe in just a few months. My particular focus within the project is the growth and impact of super massive black holes. You can check out more at our website here.

Behind the science, EAGLE actually produces some really spectacular imagery. In fact, just prior to the Lumiere, we put together a short inset for a planetarium show called “We are stars!” for the national space centre in Leicester, showing off a bit of the simulation. So it was a great opportunity when I was asked to do something similar, except this time instead of a planetarium dome, it was going on the side of Durham Cathedral. That’s not something you get to do every day 🙂

What is the show about?

The show is a combination of science, history and art. It takes you on a journey through scientific thought, asking the age old question of “where do we come from?”. Starting with a man called Robert Grosseteste, a scientist, philosopher and the bishop of Lincoln from the 14th century, he dared to think outside of conventional thought becoming (as my boss would say) the worlds first cosmologist. The journey then ends today, right here at Durham University, showing our modern understanding of cosmology, including the ‘big bang’, dark matter, galaxy formation and black holes.

My part was to produce a scene trying to show that the content of the universe is not just what we can see with our eyes, and there is actually an abundance of a strange material called dark matter completely hidden to us. And although we have yet to see dark matter directly in the real universe, we see it quite clearly in our simulations creating a skeletal structure known as the ‘cosmic web’. What I’ve tried to convey, is that in concentrations of this invisible material, galaxies such as our own Milky Way are able to form, in fact without it, our galaxy would fly apart!. We’ve put together a short website explaining this in a bit more detail, including all the other aspects of the show here.

For me it’s been great fun, if not a little stressful, to work a project like Lumiere. Being part of a large team of students and staff from the university, projection artists, sound artists and event organisers, producing a show that will be seen by thousands of people is very rewarding. We hope you will enjoy it!

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